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The Candidates

Ignatieff to take team approach to campaign Add to ...

Just after defeating the Harper government, Michael Ignatieff walked to the microphone in the Commons foyer, ready to begin his first campaign as leader of the Liberal Party

Unlike the other party leaders - Stephen Harper, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe - Mr. Ignatieff was surrounded by his entire team, and his female MPs were front and centre.

From buses that feature only the Liberal logo to that scene captured in the Commons foyer on Friday, it is clear that the team is crucial to his campaign.

Poll after poll has shown that Mr. Ignatieff lags his party in popularity. This is in contrast to NDP Leader Jack Layton, who leads his party by a substantial margin.

No surprise then that Mr. Layton's image, complete with his trademark moustache, is blown up and emblazoned all over his buses.

Mr. Ignatieff, meanwhile, will need every member of his team to help him make any inroads. Some Liberal MPs are privately thinking the party might be able to win 110 seats. Even then, that isn't enough to form a government. They have 77 seats now in the 308-seat House of Commons. The Harper Tories have 143.

And the Liberal leader will begin to trying make those inroads this weekend - his first campaign stop after a rally in Ottawa on Saturday will be Montreal. He needs to hold on to what the Liberals have, and there are hopes of winning back that Outremont seat from the NDP's deputy leader, Thomas Mulcair.

A new poll in Quebec, however, is not giving the Liberals much optimism. It shows them struggling, running behind even the NDP. So there's a lot of work to be done there.

Although Quebec is an important battleground, so is the GTA for the Liberals. It is expected that Mr. Ignatieff will campaign in the competitive Toronto area after his stop in Montreal.

His message is two-fold - ethics and the economy.

First, he will try to hammer away at the Harper government on issues of accountability and transparency, a continuation of the non-confidence motion he introduced in the House that led to the government's defeat.

In addition, he has said, he will talk about the economy, asking whether the country can afford, during this fragile economic recovery, to spend billions on fighter jets, new prisons and tax cuts for rich corporations.

But he also must address whether he would be involved in a coalition if the election produces another minority government. He stumbled out of the gate on Friday when asked where he stood on the issue.

He dodged, saying he is running to form a Liberal government.

The Tories have successfully made "coalition" a dirty word, raising the spectre of Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Layton and the separatist Bloc Québécois running the country. On Thursday in Question Period, Conservatives used the word "coalition" 18 times in 45 minutes.

Mr. Ignatieff's strategists, meanwhile, say expect to see Michael Ignatieff unplugged. By this they mean the leader will be unscripted and spontaneous, participating in town halls and round tables, in contrast to Stephen Harper, who has previously campaigned in a protective bubble.

The so-called Liberal express bus tour last summer - in which Mr. Ignatieff crossed the country, stopping in small towns and cities at barbecues and events in church basements - is serving as a bit of a template for this campaign.

And so despite the Liberals' showing in the polls - they are seven to 11 points behind the Tories depending on the poll - he and his team are confident that once they are campaigning on an equal footing, they can close the gap.

An Ignatieff friend says the leader is "very, very upbeat" and "relieved."

"Relieved to be out of the House ... I think upbeat because he finally gets a chance to let himself be judged on his own merits rather than through the eyes of the right-wing Republican ad agency that describes Michael at every turn," says the close friend.

He was referring to the Tory attack ads that have suggested Mr. Ignatieff returned to Canada after being away for 30 years only to grab power.

So that is the hope of Liberals - that Mr. Ignatieff will surprise people in a good way. Stephen Harper is a known quantity, as is Jack Layton, but Canadians are not familiar with Mr. Ignatieff as a leader.

Five years in opposition as an MP and now a leader, this is his chance to show Canadians what he and his team are all about.

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